// you’re reading...


Word of mouse

Luciano Floridi gets intimate with the machine language of love

Luciano Floridi

Luciano Floridi

Assuming one could momentarily step aside from the current pandemonium generated by Web 2.0 applications, social networks, cloud computing and smart phones, there is an obvious question that comes to mind: what will be the next wave of innovation? Of course, the only safe prediction is that it is very easy to get it wrong. Who would have thought that, twenty years after the flop of the Newton , we would be queuing to buy an iPad? Sometimes, you just have to wait for the right Apple to fall on your head. Still, there are a couple of low-hanging fruits that seem to be sufficiently ripe to be worth monitoring.

Some pundits have been talking about “the internet of things” for a while now. The next revolution will not be the vertical development of some uncharted new technology – the shift will be horizontal. It will be about connecting anything to anything, not just humans to humans. The pundits have a point. One day, you-name-it 2.0 will be passé, and we might be thrilled by a2a technologies. Even now, the fact that the Newton was advertised as being able to connect to a printer sounds quite amazing. Imagine a world in which your car autonomously checks your electronic diary and reminds you, through your digital TV, that you need to get some petrol tomorrow, before your long-distance commute. This and more is already feasible. The greatest obstacles are a lack of shared standards, limited protocols, and hardware that is not designed to be fully modular with the rest of the infosphere. It is a problem of integration and de-fragmentation, which we routinely solve by forcing humans to work like interfaces. We connect the printer to the computer, we translate the GPS’s instructions into driving manoeuvres, and we make the fridge talk to the supermarket. Essentially, the internet of things is about getting rid of us, the cumbersome humans in the loop. In a defragmented and fully integrated infosphere, the invisible coordination between gadgets will be as seamless as the way in which your iPhone interacts with your iMac.

The second fruit is affective computing. Computerised artefacts (artificial agents or AAs) not only have problems talking to each other, they also disregard their masters’ feelings. When we were punching cards, this was hardly an issue. But at least since the early 90s, a branch of AI has begun to study how AAs might be able to deal with human emotions. Two fundamental questions underpin this research program: (a) whether AAs might (or even ought to) be able to recognise human emotions and respond to them adequately; and (b) whether AAs themselves might (or even ought to) be provided with emotions or at least the capacity to develop emotions.

Question (a) is addressed by research in Human-Computer-Interaction (HCI). Users’ physiological conditions and behavioural patterns may be indicative of their emotional state, and developing AAs able to exploit such data in order to actuate adequate responsive strategies seems like a good idea. Affective computing can already prevent nasty and regrettable emails, reduce driving mistakes, encourage healthy habits, offer dietary advice, and indicate better consumer options. A distant ancestor of this sort of HCI was Microsoft’s infamous Office Assistant, known as Clippy. It was meant to assist users but turned out to be a nuisance and was discontinued in 2003. I am not sure I would enjoy a toaster that patronises me, but I am ready to concede that some advantages might be worth hurting my feelings.

The real hype surrounding affective computing concerns question (b). Here the most extraordinary claims are made, often unsubstantiated by our current understanding of computer science and our limited knowledge of animal emotions. In a nutshell, the idea is that we are good at intelligent tasks because we are also emotionally involved with them, so real AI will be achievable only if some “emotional intelligence” can be developed. I hope this sounds like modus tollens to you as well, but even if it doesn’t, the premise that intelligence requires emotion seems to be in need of serious justification. Vague evolutionary references and the usual de rigueur anti-Cartesianism are messy and confusing. There are plenty of very intelligent animals which flourish without any ostensible reliance on emotions or feelings of any kind. Crocodiles don’t cry and ants do not get annoyed with cicadas. An obstinate computer is one that needs a defrag.

It is hard to forecast what will happen when things start talking to each other, but I would not be surprised if Apple started to design white goods in the near future. At the same time, I hope our gadgets won’t be too emotional when we finally stop pampering them, as we have been forced to do for decades. It’s high time for IT to grow up and move out of our mental space. Being left alone: could this be the next big wave?

Luciano Floridi holds the Research Chair in Philosophy of Information at the University of Hertfordshire and is president of the International Association for Computing and Philosophy. His column appears in every issue of tpm. Read it as soon as it is published by subscribing to the magazine.


No comments for “Word of mouse”